Sunday, July 30, 2006


The above cat and kitten are not clones -- they arrived at the same template the old-fashioned way -- probably overriding the father’s genes with the potent calico XX formula. (This was a Sixties ‘free range cat -- I have no idea who the father was, but I’m betting that since it was a Browning cat -- a “rez cat” -- it was not wimpy.)

This is the only pair of near-identical cats I’ve had. The mother’s name was “Thumper” because when she traveled on a hard surface indoors, she put her feet down so hard that she sounded like a horse trotting. (Well, not QUITE, but you get the idea.) The kitten’s name was “Mama’s Little Baby,” for obvious reasons. She followed her mother around, sitting the same way, lying down the same way (except for nursing) and proceeding at the same rate. The other kittens went their own way.

When cats ARE cloned, it has disconcerted researchers to discover that they don’t get little duplicates of the mother! Not even the same color. Now it comes into focus that the negotiated relationship between maternal DNA and paternal DNA is not a simple zipper-like meshing after all. The cell itself has something to say about it, the biochemistry of the womb has input, and -- most important of all -- genes don’t just specify this characteristic or that (and REALLY they don’t say “blue eyes” or “brown eyes” but give the formula for the color in question), genes also say, “Okay, you’ve spent enough time on bone now -- begin to make muscle -- we’ll come back to bones later” (or some equivalent) and this time element introduces another variable. The color of the cat that is patched may be the result of the genes wavering: “make black fur -- no, orange.” No one has quite figured out the relationship between coat color in domestic cats and their other characteristics (vigor, predator skill, friendliness) but it seems likely that there is one.

Research into the feline genome is motivated in several different contexts. First, but much downplayed, is research on the biochemical physiology of cats and genetics, already much experimented on. Cats are better than rats for research on things like emotions (the autonomic nervous system) but many people are shocked by the process and would shut it down if they could, esp. the use of electrodes on brains.

Second is veterinary uses to safeguard the pets themselves but also to intercept whatever diseases might migrate to people, either directly (as many people think cat leukemia can) or indirectly (the cat that dragged in the rat that carried the flea that harbored the bacteria).

Third is the inquiry into the whole major category of cats which includes many charismatic mega-mammals like lions and tigers and panthers -- some of them endangered -- and a whole array of smaller spotted cats that never have been domesticated or, more likely, have never domesticated themselves. One project crosses domestic cats with a rather bigger spotted cat, producing burly, exotic-looking, sometimes-tame cats that people often crave to own.

Fourth is the cat fancy crowd, which is raising cats for profit and show and is interested in maintaining the health of the cats while not letting the characteristics of the breed escape. Some kinds of cat are greatly inbred, to the point of getting miscarriages, deformed kittens, diseases, and so on. One can get a little genetic "cheek swab" kit to send in one's own cat's genes.

Fifth is the forensic uses of cat DNA. In the famous "Snowball" case, a murderer was caught through the identification of cat hair -- more fun than carpet fibers.

My grandson, who stayed with us the summer of Thumper and Mama’s Little Baby (the summer he was six years old) asked me when he was grown up why I always had a calico cat and a yellow cat. Those were my favorite cat colors. I didn’t know why they were.

But one day I was reflecting on “attachment” and emotional patterning in individual children. (This is a whole category of clinical psychology, sometimes called “teddy bear psychology,” about how small children transfer their love of their mothers to their teddy bears as a way of becoming more independent.) It came to mind in a kind of vision that when I was small, my bed was pushed up against a bookcase and on the shelf level with my face, in front of the books, I kept a collection of tiny china figures that people had given me. (This was before plastics.) There was a penguin in a porkpie hat and muffler --not unlike Opus in the comics. I wonder if that cartoonist had a little china figure like that. His partner was a duck, unlike Daisy Duck except that she had long eyelashes. Also, there was a dog, maybe a spaniel, sleeping -- just a lump really, ears painted on.

But the figures I came back to over and over were a calico cat (only an inch or so tall) and a yellow striped cat, both with their tails staight up (a characteristic of domestic cats) and one front foot in the air. They had kittens, also with spike tails, no more than a half-inch tall. The littleness was important. I suppose they were about an inch-to-a-foot, the most common doll-house ratio and the proportion Bob Scriver used when making his dioramas. I played with them so much, marching them back and forth and talking for them, that they chipped and broke -- becoming a family of Manx cats.

Thus the pattern was formed for what I thought was “the right kind” of cat, just as I believed that our Scottie mix was the right kind of dog, but my father thought all dogs should be like “Coalie,” a black and white collie, HIS childhood dog. The postmaster and I were discussing potato salad recipes and she remarked, “Everyone thinks potato salad should be just like whatever his mother made.” It takes some accident to break out of that pattern, just like the kind of accident in timing or mutation that creates a new kind of animal, maybe human.

The point is how emotional we are about all this. I suppose cats are, too. One is licking my knee seductively at the moment -- hoping I’ll open a cat of catfood. I suppose it had something to do with finding a nipple on the mother cat once, but now this “mother’s little baby” likes cat food better anyway. What’s even more interesting is that I like having my knee licked. Where did THAT come from?

Saturday, July 29, 2006


The forecast for today was a high of 95, but we haven’t reached it because there is a scrim of smoke across the sky. The closest forest fire I know of is in Glacier National Park, near St. Mary and showing up on the webcam pointed at Red Eagle Mountain, not that there’s much to see except that diffused smoke. The forecast now calls for a sudden drop in temp -- maybe ten degrees -- which means wind. That’s not good for firefighters.

Glacier Park has a long and vivid history with fire, going back to the days when there were no roads, few trails, and fewer fire fighters. 1910 was a terrible year all over the West. Glacier, which was so new it had no earlier history, lost 100,000 acres. Of course, now we know that it’s more realistic to say that the acres were “renewed,” but there’s always that bad patch when it’s all black char and worry about erosion. Sometimes the fire burns over onto the reservation, taking income timber. Grazing is only injured for that year. (I grew up picking huckleberries in the Tillamook Burn between Portland and the coast. It was a legendary fire -- and the hucks made legendary pies. There were plenty of blackened snags to use for landmarks when it was time to carry your bucket back to the car.)

In 1926 the Glacier fires began in May and continued until the fall snows snuffed them. In 1935 fire ripped through the boundary between Glacier Park and the contiguous Waterton Park on the Canadian side, reaching for the town of Waterton, which had to be evacuated in a hurry. The elegant Prince of Wales hotel was left with a dedicated staff that counted on watering the roof and other fire-fighting devices. They succeeded in defeating the fire, but when they called the head of the owner corporation to say they had saved the building, his first response was, “What for?” The ultimate device was a very nice insurance policy!

Some fires get named, like the Halfmoon Fire of 1929. The one that older people around here used to mention was the Heavens Peak fire of August, 1936. Against all expectations, it leapt up cliffs on the west side and over the Continental Divide; then when the wind rose it flared through Granite Park, Swiftcurrent Pass and Many Glacier Valley. Incredulous accounts of a bright line first appearing at the top of the Valley are recorded in memoirs. Though the holocaust spared the Many Glacier Hotel, it took the Swiftcurrent cabins, the ranger station, a museum, and other buildings. Then the wind reversed and the fire was contained by desperately fighting people.

In 1940 and 1945 there were bad fires -- the worst years seem to be spaced about five years apart, but then the next bad year was 1958. The little book I’m using for a reference (Through the Years in Glacier National Park, an Administrative History”) was published in 1960 -- so old it sold for $1.50 -- and I can’t put my hand on a more recent time-line, but since 1961 I’ve witnessed more than a few fires.

I was interested to read that the Apgar area on the west side, where Charlie and Mamie Russell built their cabin, was climax red cedar and hemlock forest with little understory, so that it was like a majestic park where one could walk through the ferns in shade while the east side prairies simmered and shimmered with heat. When the fire came, people took their Navajo rugs down to the lake and submerged them, holding them down with rocks. When the forest rather quickly grew back, it was thick lodgepole pine -- not the same at all -- but the rugs survived.

Nowadays historic buildings and the feet of power pylons are sprayed with foam and wrapped in foil to save them -- which seems to be effective. But fire and the attendant smoke has roughly the same impact on the tourist crop as hail has on the wheat crop. Even here in Valier, which is at least an hour’s drive away, people are complaining about their asthma, which was already aggravated by heat and dust.

On the other side of the “coin” is the prospect of feeding and housing firefighters. These teams are highly organized now, semi-military and coordinated with air “bombings” of fire retardant or water. The science of fire has gotten much sharper. I remember a woman in Missoula who spent one whole summer figuring out fuel loads by staking out ten foot square plots, collecting every stick and leaves within that plot, classifying each single leaf or twig, and then weighing them all.

Conrad Burns, who is entirely too much at home in airports, got himself in trouble again by walking up to a group of exhausted firefighters waiting for a flight and emptying over their heads a lot of resentful remarks made by angry and scared second-guessing ranchers at a complaint meeting Burns [sic] had attended earlier. The local firefighting boss was soon there and dampened Burns considerably. The senator apologized. He’d thought he’d play the “bring-it-on” hero and (don’t these people pay attention to each other?) instead made himself a fool. Net loss of votes. Bring on that guy with the flat-top haircut! (Jon Tester)

Before the highly trained Hotshot crews like the one Burns attacked, the rangers would just come into Browning and grab anyone they could find on the streets. Bill Haw, a high school counselor who had once run a forest camp for a church, was stopped on the street and asked if he could cook over a campfire. “Sure,” he said. “If you’ll let my wife know where I went.” The stove was an improvised barbecue pit of chicken wire over a steel frame. It was ten days before he got home.

I wonder how Burns is at camp cooking. His prospects (to say nothing of his perspective) might be much improved by a ten day absence.
Translates to:
(National Park Service, Glacier, webcams, St. Mary’s camera -- htm is computer spinach I can’t translate.)

Thursday, July 27, 2006


When I go over to Shelby monthly to get my blood pressure med at Pamida, I think of my months working at that county’s nursing home because Janet, the pharmacist, was the pharmacist at the Care Center complex during that time period. She’s one of those centered, attentive, intelligent beings that one really WANTS to have as a pharmacist so I’m always happy to see her.

However, I’m not so happy when I think about my brief career as ward clerk several years ago. There were four applicants for the job and since I was the only one who had ever used a database, I was hired. In this state one can be dismissed for no reason at all until one has passed the probationary period of six months. This job had been originally set up as a half-time job because the regular ward clerk had begun to show physical signs of stress, like possible angina. She was excellent, conscientious to a fault, and educated to be a lab tech so she had exactly the right kind of personality, enculturation, and standards. (I wasn’t even an “English major” but rather a secret theatre major -- total mismatch for record-keeping but it had been just right for my previous decade as a minister.) We were both named Mary.

That Mary threw a loop into the rope when the process of hiring me was almost complete -- she declared that SHE wanted the half-time job rather than the full-time job. So here I was with a full-time job for which I was unsuited. It got worse.

The way drugs are administered to the patients, mostly elderly in this nursing home, was that the ward head nurse (there were two wards) had a cart on wheels with drawers in it. Each patient had an entry in a 3-ring binder which told the nurse which meds each was supposed to get, usually at meals, and the meds were in the drawers in bubble packs of the stipulated dosages. The cart was locked into a special meds room when it wasn’t right with the head nurse as she gave out the pills. I had a key to the special meds room so I could go in and change the 3-ring binders when necessary.

There were a couple of bugaboos: one was that narcotics would be stolen and the other was that a patient would be given the wrong meds or the wrong dosage. Recently there has again been publicity about how often people across the country are given the wrong meds and the damage it does, but I hardly saw that. Instead, what I saw was that these nurses were mostly local, had known these people by name for decades (might even be related), and were well aware of what they were supposed to take and what it was for. In fact, the nurses often caught errors that the doctors made.

The other Mary was vigilant and effective. She not only kept all the drugs straightened out and the 3-ring binders up-to-date, she also cleaned up the nursing stations -- especially when she came first thing in the morning -- and maintained a big blackboard full of notes about individuals in the break room. The nurses interpreted the ward clerk as a person “who has nothing immediate to do,” and would often try to get the ward clerk to push patients in wheelchairs over to the doctor half of the complex or pick them up after they had been tended to. Mary managed to not do that without offending anyone. I never figured out how to do that.

The biggest problem was intake, when a new person came into the wards. Finding out, recording, learning the new routine was always a half-day ordeal. Everyone was overloaded, the doctors were slow to make decisions, new questions arose, and though most people who came in were too sick to protest, a few of them had demands. The checklist Mary made for me was two pages long. It seemed as though I always let something slip by me. Mary often came back after supper -- she lived in Shelby -- on exceptionally busy days, so that she could give another check to her own work. I lived thirty miles away and was not about to come back in a blizzard. Mary was a dedicated Baptist, whose life was a living testament to her concern for what is right. I, this Mary, am also religious, but in quite a different way.

Most of the mistakes made were along the lines of missing a pill or giving a slightly wrong dosage. Most of the management concern was along the lines of not providing grounds for a lawsuit -- not for killing a patient. Sometimes (rarely) nurses deliberately gave meds not prescribed, for instance when someone was in extreme pain but didn’t have bubble pack for that and no doctor could be found. They’d just borrow a bubble and break it open, then put it down as lost.

It seems to me that the present publicity about drug errors is meant to echo the New Orleans case where patients were actively put to death since they were already teetering on the edge and would otherwise face the torment of heat or possibly drowning.

In this Montana nursing center an in-house laboratory produced overnight blood and urine scans constantly. The most common life-threatening problems I saw were not pill mistakes but rather bladder infections or blood poisoning. Scrubbing and maintenance of aging facilities was a problem. The ward clerk kept track of patient bathing but could do nothing about broken lifts or creeping mold in the damp windowless bathrooms.

Nurses were under incredible pressure. Many had children, had to work more than forty hours a week, and were single parents. Several were wives of ranchers and some were the sure-enough rancher themselves. A fiendish management tool was the “traveling nurses,” who were nurses who worked as temps, coming in cold (often quite literally in winter) from hundreds of miles away (often from Canada), not knowing even the other nurses much less the patients, staying only a day or so in impromptu dorms, often exhausted, the backs of their cars piled with clothes. On the one hand, the records in the binders on the drug carts were critical -- they had no other real guide -- but on the other hand, they had no reason to question what they read, to cooperate with the ward clerk, to pick up the additional information that circulated without being written down. “So and so seems exceptionally weepy.” “I think Mr. X is hurting, but he can’t say how.” The Director of Nursing had standing orders to simply fire any insubordinate employee on the spot. With travel nurses at hand, there was no problem with staffing gaps. Theoretically.

But the people who turned over even more quickly than nurses were the “Certified Nursing Assistants,” an assorted lot who ranged from angels of mercy to shady guys the nurses said would feel your butt, given a chance. Who knows what they did to the patients. Everyone seemed resigned to them because they were big and strong, could turn patients over single-handed. I turned one in for cursing out a little victim of MS and throwing her wheelchair seatpad against the wall. He was fired on the spot. Everyone was mad at me, including the patient, who feared making trouble.

The nursing supervisor was madly in love with some guy in the Flathead Valley and was rarely on the premises. One of her last acts before being fired was to fire me. She almost immediately got another job because there is so much need for people with her qualifications. The new one turned out to be much better. The other Mary went back to full-time. At least at that point I qualified for unemployment.

A major to-do is being made about economics splitting out so that the top keeps making more and more money, the bottom gradually sinks deeper into poverty, and the middle-class is flat-lined. Today on “Here and Now” Paul Krugman repeated the same warnings he gives over and over again. For a taste of him (in case you can’t afford to be a NYTimes “Select” reader) try this url: I’m absolutely convinced he’s right in just about every dimension.

But also, this business of “mistake-proofing” meds in hospitals is a good example of enticing the innocent into spending huge amounts of money on complicated computer software that isn’t really up to the task. I could barely understand the system in place. After they upgraded it, there was no one in the whole Health Center who really understood it -- including the so-called computer expert. If you were much of a computer expert, would you settle for a deadend job in a High Line Montana nursing home in a town with two economic resources: a train/truck interchange and a for-profit prison?

That in itself is bad enough, but in promising that all would be solved by Hal the Computer, the management assumed they could justify raises for themselves because nurses could be laid off -- and those pesky CNA’s. The computer would take care of everything. So the money goes to some tech company with ghosts in carrels pumping out code, and NOT to the patient’s niece who has struggled her way through training because she believes that nursing is a sacred calling.

Most people around here don’t want to hear me raving like this. It’s too scary. They don’t know what to do about it. Luckily, there was a trucker from Salt Lake City waiting for the pharmacist at the same time I was. While he drives he listens to streamed radio via modem from across the country and even across the globe. He thinks NPR is insipid and the Clear Channel world is corrupt. He understood exactly what I was saying.

I don’t know how much Janet, the pharmacist overheard. Her assistant, a young woman, was staring wide-eyed, then remembered herself and pretended she didn’t hear anything. It’s not a strategy I admire, but it works in the short term. I just think we need a much stronger prescription.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

"WILLIAM HENRY HOLMES and the Rediscovery of the American West"

William Henry Holmes and the Rediscovery of the American West” by Kevin J. Fernlund (U of New Mexico Press, ISBN 0-8263-2127-5) takes advantage of the not entirely serendipituous coincidence between the career of Holmes and the development and professionalization of scientific disciplines based on exploration, especially of the American West. The idea is that once Lewis & Clark showed that there was a lot of big space out there, then a swarm of interested parties went to see what occupied the space, deriving regions and analyzing geology, ancient civilizations, existing peoples, and material culture such as pots and weapons. On the dark side, which serendipity by definition is not supposed to have, most of the parties are self-interested and assume with confidence that they are the measure of all things that they meet.

Holmes began as a scientific artist, rendering landscapes, which one might not think was a matter easily distorted until Fernlund gently persuades us that to meet the Grand Canyon assuming it is a narrow gorge will cause the artist to find a place to draw it as a narrow gorge, while someone more open to the immensity (Holmes) might rise with talent to the challenge of portraying it in that way.

To draw landscape is to analyze the forms, which soon leads to theories of how the forms -- well -- "formed": volcanic upwellings, sedimentary deposits interspersed with ancient forests, compression ridges jumbling the sediments, and so on. Pretty soon Holmes is proposing and defending these theories.

Having been to and fro in the land so much, Holmes easily sees that the indigenous peoples are very much responsive to the places where they live and he becomes embroiled in anthropology. He is so determined to “make points” about flintknapping that he permanently disables one arm while pounding on a boulder. This doesn’t keep him from making major contributions through investigating old mines and quarries of the peoples of the east coast.

Always the thread of art continues as he draws so carefully and clearly, sometimes recording scenes in watercolor, but rarely in oil. Eventually he becomes a national curator of art.

After the first beginnings and a cursed academic adventure in Chicago, his scientific career is entirely in Washington, D.C. where he finds his home in institutions such as the Smithsonian rather than in universities. Always an orderly man, as time goes on he becomes ever more impeccable, “professional,” punctilious, and intolerant of contradiction. If angered enough, he leaves off his three-piece suit disguise and attacks with an old-fashioned two-handed man-splitter, taking on people like Boas or Kroeber who are today minor saints in many quarters which has probably not helped his popularity.

This is a quietly thorough and extensively documented book, but witty throughout. It can’t be read carelessly and is most meaningful where the reader already has a little background. The saddest chapter is the last, in which Holmes realizes something that we all should remember: the great revelation of the Maya remains, huge stone pyramids and temples completely overgrown with jungle, almost immediately began to erode and fade when the foliage was cut away. One wonders whether in “claiming the frontier” with all our plowing and sifting, we haven’t exposed the subtlety and grandeur of the place -- maybe even the time -- to destruction.

Once, the American West was a place where any intelligent, energetic person could go to make a name for him or herself, one way or another, without having to beg for funding or kowtow to a committee. No more. We’re still working on some of the same issues that Holmes addressed, like when the first peoples come to this continent, but most of these questions are now addressed with much technical data and specialized methods. Nevertheless it is still true that the vision of how to look with understanding at all this accumulated stuff requires hands-on contact and an ability to think out of the box. For Holmes the box gradually formed around him, looking quite a lot like a bureaucratic office.

Nevertheless, Holmes worked hard and well, took risks and survived, and was part of the evolution of the sciences in the Americas from the late 19th century to the early 20th. Beyond that, without romanticizing he created artwork that still has great beauty as well as insight into the nature of the West and its deep past. He was a creature of his times who was eventually captured by a place: Washington, D.C. It’s a cautionary tale.

Monday, July 24, 2006


The first yellow leaves are spiralling onto the grass. One can spot a few clusters of them in the weakest of the tree branches where the sap isn’t quite keeping the leaves supplied with sugars and water, causing the chlorophyl to shut down. Counter-intuitively, the Summer Solstice doesn’t come in the middle of summer, but marks its beginning. Now we are at about the midpoint of the season and already on the decline, though it’s still very hot and will probably continue to be. It’s sort of like being forty. You still have time do a lot of stuff that you’re actually too sensible to do.

Last night I slept with the front door open and the screen door hooked, the radio on low and one light -- if I don’t, the diligent village deputies will stop to try my door to see whether I forgot to lock up, and their fumbling will wake me. Not that I slept much. The temperature didn’t really go down until after 6AM this morning. One of my bigger fans burned out. No fire. Just got hot and stopped. I miss it.

Winter wheat ripened three weeks earlier than usual this year. When I went for gas, the heat created a “dust devil” so big, so clearly defined, and so full of dust that one gas pumper fled inside his vehicle and slammed the doors. He said later he half expected to be lifted off the ground. Tornados are possible here, but not as common as fires. They say all these phenomena -- early crops, air whirls and fires -- are signs of global warming and resistance to the idea is weakening. The huge sky-wide thunderstorms that come in the evening have always been here. That’s what the Thunderpipe Bundle Ceremonies are to guard against. Even so, there have been lightning casualties, mostly hikers or golfers. There was a strike right in town a week or so ago. Took out a tree. If luck is bad, the whole East Front of the Rockies could go up in flames.

The village is very quiet because of the harvest. Even the cafe empties out by nine in the morning. Last year the ranchers were short-handed for truck drivers and I seriously considered whether I could drive one of the massive wheat-hauling trucks that follow the combines until they are full, then travel to the grain elevator. The answer was no, but still -- they seem to spend most of their time waiting, which offers good reading time for ranch wives. And a good excuse to have take-out pizza instead of cooking.

It’s past time to dig up, separate and replant the iris, which I have never done on this property. A few got enough water to bloom this year and I fancy they would be impressive if they weren’t smushed together so tightly. In fact, I haven’t even gotten the daylily border properly weeded, mostly because of ant infestations that run up my arms, but also because early morning is the best time to garden but it’s also the best time to read and the latter wins. And anyway, I like the grass heads waving among the lilies.

I’ve bought a new kind of ant poison -- we’ll see what it will do. They are a proper plague. It seems as though they go in relays -- I get the population of big ones knocked back just in time for a procession of teeny ones to march into the territory. Again I’m finding little flat sun-cooked bat bodies in the yard, victims of Squibbie. No need to worry about rabies from picking them up for disposal. Sunshine kills rabies. Bats eat skeeters, but not enough of them to make watering in the evening a pleasant chore. We're forbidden to water between 10AM and 6PM.

My air conditioner has never been installed and I think about it on these very hot nights, but one problem is that my bedroom windows have no sills, which is what window AC units are meant to hook over. When this house was insulated (by adding a false wall and pouring cancer-promoting vermiculate in the space created), the unskilled labor evidently couldn’t figure out how to reinstall windowframes and sills.

We’re getting up in the dark again -- sunup is at 6AM. I’m still rising -- at least temporarily --somewhere between 4 and 5AM. I thought for a while it would be good to take my blood sugar then and eat a little something, but the evidence is that I can do that just as well at 9AM. Mostly my blood sugar readings stay about 100, which is normal. My next door neighbor came over to make sure I was withstanding the heat (Check on your old folks, don’t be a French fry!) and to tell me that the old lady who “aged out” and went to a nursing home has sold her house to an old man who tends to fall down. If I see him down, I’m to render unspecified aid.

So how does one install a windowsill anyway?

Renee Fleming is singing "Summertime" on the radio in a crystalline, elegant voice. I close my eyes to listen.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

SQUIBS & CRACKERS: The Early Years

"Remember how last fall we used to climb up in trees and scramble around? Remember how much fun that was? Maybe we should do that again."

"Later. It's so hard to get motivated in the summer."

Saturday, July 22, 2006


Some of the bloggers whom I most enjoy have been doing a “ten bird meme,” which means that they list and describe the ten “best” of the birds they know or have spotted in the bird watcher manner. Querencia ( says, “Pluvialis, Chas, and Rebecca all continue the Ten Bird Meme. We (including Darren and Carel as well) are considering an e- book at very least-- stand by!” Pluvialis is a truly extraordinary English ornithologist/author. Try July 6 (“Smeleken” a small hawk) or June 29 (“The Southern Bald Ibis”). Be grateful you can bring up photos and writing this vivid for FREE!! Steve and Libby Bodio hunt with hawks and keep them in the house.

My meme will not make the book. In my world I might see a little dark bird that my small night-active cat has caught, killed and put in the cat food dishes, since the other big fat cat and I have slept improvidently through the dawn hours when things are best. I ought to get out a bird identification book and see what the sad little victim is, but I’m so embarrassed, sorry and disgusted with the cat for being its own natural self that I slip the little bird into the trash quickly and try not to think about it.

There’s another bird that I hear early in the morning: a pheasant that makes a sound like a New Year’s party noise-maker -- a cranking squawk, not pleasant. I never see what I assume is a China rooster. The sound is pretty unmistakable. I think he lives on the airport grass, alongside the little covey of quail that I sometimes flush there. This village is surrounded by wheat fields and the birds are likely to slip around in stalks or stubble there as well.

So that’s three birds.

My big black cottonwood tree (I THINK that’s what it is -- Rex Rieke told me when he was here, but I didn’t write it down) was absolutely dripping with cotton and seeds this spring because of the extra rain, and that attracted all sorts of birds. I sit to read where I can watch this tree, a panopticon of small events among the leaves, and one day could NOT read because there were three kinds of singing finches out there cavorting in the cotton and seeds: the little brown ones, yellow ones like canaries, and bright red ones. Normally there’s a neat little sharp-beaked bird that goes up and down the trunk picking out bugs of some kind. It’s as likely to be upside down as rightside up and it travels on the vertical trunk more than the horizontal branches.

The two cats like to get up there and cavort, too, but not as much as they did when they were adolescent. When they first came, I had to stop feeding birds so I wouldn’t be inviting them into a death trap. So what’s that? Seven, not counting cats? (I don’t think there are catbirds around here.)

One of my great joys in life is meadowlark song and one of the good things about this village is that there are big tracts of lots that were developed but unsold, so that they’ve been what my next door neighbor calls “prairie” for a long time. The meadowlarks sing there, close enough to hear through the day.

That makes eight. My mother had a thing about mourning doves, which she associated with an unhappy and unfortunate move in her childhood. The family, for health reasons, left a pleasant house in Washington state when she was about ten and moved into a much more modest house near Roseburg, Oregon. It was in a narrow valley, short on fertility, sunlight and water -- overpopulated with mourning doves. She grieved along with them. There are many of them here, living in my big evergreen trees. They seem to have no relationship at all with the many rock doves -- which we know as city pigeons -- who roost on the grain bins that are clustered in rows on village lots along the railroad.

That’s ten, but I’ll tell you about my most embarrassing bird if you promise not to hold it against me. When I’d only been here a month, I was reading in my new front room -- still fairly empty and without curtains -- when shadows kept crossing my pages. They were so regular and speedy that I went outdoors to see what was making them. Seagulls, or some birds LIKE seagulls, were gyring around the village at the tops of the trees, evidently chasing some kind of insect hatch. But they had NO BEAKS. At least I couldn’t see any. I don’t have binocs. I stood out there peering at them so intently that they got curious about me in turn, and swam by lower, turning their heads to stare at me. No beaks.

I looked in my bird books for beakless gulls. No such thing. I called a bird expert and asked her about this amazing phenomenon. She was stumped and then she became very kind and said she had to get off the line. Clearly, she thought she was talking to a crazy person.

Finally, I did figure out that the beaks simply happened to be the same value as the sky -- they weren’t quite a saturated enough yellow to contrast with the pale blue sky. The beaks just looked missing. It was an optical illusion. I’ll get a short story out of it some day. Sort of like Tennessee Williams’ bird that had no feet or legs because it never landed -- just sailed the skies. There are seabirds who are almost like that -- albatrosses and so on. But they have to land long enough to hatch eggs or there wouldn’t be any more of them.

I used to have a supervising minister who talked all the time about “stormy petrels” (meaning slightly insane people who made trouble) and a roommate who talked all the time about the “rara avis,” meaning the unique genius. I think I will explain to the cats that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs and therefore all have beaks... and should be respected. They will look at me kindly and make excuses to leave.

"OFF TO THE SIDE" by Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison’s memoir is called “Off to the Side” because he had one eye damaged by one of those vicious little girls no one ever is careful enough about. It’s surprising how many people I know with similar eye damage, though Richard Stern’s eye was congenitally wandering, I think, and one woman I know was simply born with one eye. (She wears a glass eye which some friends and I always mistook for the real one because it looked so alert.)

But Harrison takes his eye, which caused him real grief, a little self-pity and a good deal of sympathy from others, as a kind of motif to which he returns and the dust jacket plays off the idea with a photo of him leaning one way while the title is on the other edge and the phrase “A Memoir” is written small back on the other side. He looks big, tough, irascible and hardly pitiable, but it took him a long time to get there.

On the back is the interior man, who matches some of this writing a little better: dark, intent and under a cross. He looks as though he might be a little mad, and according to himself, that’s not far off -- though he, unlike some of his friends (Brautigan, for instance) is auto-salvific. He saves himself. How? By getting into the thickets, not symbolic ones but real thickets with his real dog, where he can step out of himself and reflect honestly on it all.

Of course, it helped to write screenplays in Hollywood for huge amounts of money, though he was poor enough in his early years. When it came to marriage, he was also auto-salvific, able to recover from disagreements and real conflicts, even if it meant going away to look for a thicket for a while. And he was lucky in friendship, attracting and holding big vital male writers like himself. (If one can say that about Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote as well as Peter Matthiessen, Tom McGuane, Hayden Carruth and other people who could talk him up, make connections, get grants, and keep him in the tribe. At one point Jack Nicholson wrote him a check sufficient to replace a year’s income so he could really write what he wanted to write.) His family was strong.

One of his main gifts seems to be establishing and preserving relationships with women: his aunts, his daughters, his friends -- he doesn’t take advantage of them but he takes heed of what they say. And he doesn’t double-cross them, at least not on purpose. So he has earned the right to depend upon them.

Fishing and hunting helped. And so did his cooking, though I think I’d bow out on a dinner invitation since his recipes mostly lean to strange parts of anatomy simmered in the hottest condiments available and swilled down with strong alcohol of great expense. I’ll stick to my boring low-glycemic life-saving abstemiousness.

Still, a man who can roar and rant and dredge up wild scenes like those in “Legends of the Fall” can’t be all bad. At least he’s not bland. And occasionally he will say something about himself that is so personal and -- well, recognizable even to a child -- that it’s disarming to say nothing of endearing. For instance, he claims to be hopeless about drying off after a bath. He begins all right, but forgets what he’d doing, sits down on the bed and begins to read or fiddle with some object until he just air-dries or puts on clothes while still wet. One of his friends explained to him carefully the proper order and technique of drying off, but for Harrison it just doesn’t register. I have the same problem -- had to post a little list for my morning routine or I forget something.

This is what comes of having an inner life so intense and complex that it’s often more interesting than “real” life, which means that sometimes one’s “real” life is in danger if there aren’t people willing to look out for one, or if one isn’t in a situation that is safely structured for wanderminded writers. It’s just extra important to pay attention when driving.

The thing of it is, if one is driven to write, in the beginning there’s no assurance at all that one will be able to do it. It’s a thing that has to be done for a while before you can really do it -- like horse-back riding or -- I suppose -- fishing. At first it’s a matter of reading, then a matter of living, and finally something mysterious -- an inner leap of some sort to a world-view worth sharing and language skills up to the task.

On the cover is this rather windy blurb from Hayden Carruth: “No one has advanced and expanded the American literary ethos in the latter part of the twentieth century more cogently, usefully, and just plain brilliantly than Jim Harrison... This is a matter to which all literate Americans should pay serious attention.” (I don't really know what that means.)

Carruth and Harrison are not men who live in this world easily, or so I gather -- not knowing them personally. Harrison has worried about what he can “see” in the deep sense as well as physically, an attempt to see things from both sides, to see deeply and honestly. But on the other hand he recognizes the necessity of fitting into the commercial world. One can almost hear his agent or editor urging him to drop some names and tell more sensational stories. Like seeing naked women in strip clubs or even by accident. He defends outrageousness in reasonable tones, which is undoubtedly why Jack Nicholson likes him.

Off to the Side” is not going to tell you how to write, find an agent, or get on the best-seller list. It’s not even going to tell you how to be outrageous and get away with it. But it will tell you what it cost one man to write as well as he could, never really knowing whether it was good enough.

Let that be a warning to you. I don’t know whether there’s a lesson in it.

"Off to the Side" by Jim Harrison. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002. ISBN 0-87113-860-3

Sunday, July 16, 2006


From the Great Falls Tribune, July, 1906

An offer has been made to the directors of the Nothern Montana Fair Association, which if accepted will result in the providing of a large and most unique attraction for the coming fair.

The offer was made by F.C. Campbell, superintendent of the Fort Shaw Indian School, who agrees to bring in the prindipal part of his school, excepting the buildings, and to conduct all of the branches of the school work at the fair grounds, providing quarters can be provided for the children and equipment.

It is his suggestion that all of the school work be carried out here, including the famous manual training department of blacksmithing, carpentering, sewing, cooking and other branches which are taught the little Indians at the school.

In the neighborhood of 400 people would take part in this exhibit, including the Fort Shaw band and mandolin club.

The pupils would be quartered in tents but one or more buildings would have to be provided for the school work.

In case the offer should be accepted, Mr. Campbell may decide to take the children on to Helena for a similar exhibit at the state fair, the idea being to impress upon the people of the state the great work which is being done by the government, through this school, in educating the Indian and develping his talents so he may become self-supporting.


Fred C. Campbell was one of the more enlightened Indian agents to serve the reservation. In “Rebirth of the Blackfeet Nation, 1912-1954,” Paul Rosier describes him as “an imposing red-headed figure of six feet, two inches,” which would also have fitted William Clark of the Lewis & Clark Expedition or George Washington. He was of a “type,” unusually strong and qualified for leadership. He’d had several BIA jobs under several administrations and arrived in March 1921, a time of drought and severe winter. Though these conditions are hard on the mixed-blood stockmen who normally did well, they pressed full-bloods into starvation. Campbell’s first act was to visit every household on the reservation with the agency doctor in tow. His whole approach was more like an extension agent or a 4-H leader.

His solution was to try to make the people self-sufficient through mixed farming: small gardens, pigs and chickens, and small grain fields with a flour mill in Heart Butte. His method was to organize a Five Year Industrial Program (the “industry” involved meaning hard work rather than the use of machines) through 29 chapters of the Piegan Farming and Livestock Association that somewhat echoed the old-time bands of related persons. These folks were put in competition with each other as chapters or granges, but also encouraged to cooperate among themselves in the purchase of stock and farm machines. (Darrell Kipp’s father at one point won a competition for big fat mutton sheep!)

There was enough success for Commissioner of Indian Affairs Charles Burke to say, “Without making any invidious comparisons, I may say that no tribe of Indians in the United States has made better progress during the past two years than the Blackfeet.”

But it only looked good to the outside, where having Indian children demonstrate their 4-H-type skills seemed progressive and not just a way of preparing them for domestic service or humble farms. On the inside Campbell’s success with the full-bloods began a prejudice against the “south siders” as being sheep (like their herds), Bolsheviks (because of their communal ownership of some things), and old-fashioned, that has persisted in tribal politics to this day. (For images of these people and their work, see William Farr’s photo album: “The Reservation Blackfeet, 1882-1945.”

The other dynamic was the discovery of oil which immediately pushed aside all other sources of wealth so far as either the mixed-bloods or whites were concerned. The Osage were the example: rich enough to buy cars and live high and idle. (The Osage murders over ownership of oil wells were muffled. Not until Linda Hogan’s novel, “Mean Spirits,” did the dark side of being rich rise to awareness.) The mixed-blood and white influence was so strong that they managed to push Campbell out. Campbell had little or no interest in the oil industry and paid little attention to it at a time when oil barons were on the prowl. The result of that inattention has been continuing cheating of the tribe while Cut Bank, just off to the east and the county seat, was flush with oil for a few decades.

Controversy over oil, now much stripped out, continues on the reservation. The only force strong enough to compete with it is gambling casinos, which threaten to reproduce all the victimization and exploitation of both land allotment and oil rights. Campbell would be appalled, but one wonders if he could be effective in the face of today’s social forces. One wonders what house-to-house visits on the rez would reveal.

Friday, July 14, 2006


Once I had a friend who became a millionaire. He had belonged to a church near Los Angeles where the minister had been a big help to him in hard times and he wanted to reward them. They were in desperate need of a new roof for the church and just beginning a fund drive. So my friend went to the minister and proposed that he simply write a check for the cost of the new roof.

The minister was enraged.

My friend was stunned! He had a very hard time understanding the minister’s explanation that his donation would destroy the congregation by removing their need to work together for a common and quite real goal, to say nothing of their democratic process and self-determination. My moneybags friend knew little about groups or what held them together, to say nothing of their internal dynamics. But in a sly way, which he denied even to himself, he was trying to buy the congregation, make them like him.

This little village and others like it have a similar problem. Very rich folks have come to the area, finding it delightfully spacious and inexpensive compared to either coast, but inevitably they want to be instant big shots in a place that doesn’t think anyone is “real” until they’ve lived here a couple of decades. And they always start wanting it to be like what they left, so they press for sidewalks and flowers and cute little shops and a source of espresso. Night lighting for the little crop-duster’s airport, so they can land their commuter plane.

Our particular rich person is a wife and therefore needful of things to do. Our particular village has a female mayor who is quite impressed by money and not particularly experienced. (She has worked as a bartender, mostly, and is presently an Avon lady.) Soon the village’s lawyer quit because his advice was no longer taken and a new female lawyer was hired. They just KNEW she would be great because she dresses so well.

The infrastructure costs of my house have doubled since I came in 1999. If they double again, I will have to give up either water or sewer or electricity or gas. I live on social security, which is not likely to double -- in fact, they say, is likely to be reduced. I’m not the only one and the pressures are making us mean and angry, though rather covertly so far. The village council, which includes two young, handsome, competent young men (who are quietly left out of some doings where they might make problems), does not like trouble. People who grew up in this town are very sensitive to criticism and blame, so they hate having to be on the council, except they’re afraid that if they don’t, the town will simply be destroyed by debt and overblown projects.

Last night one problem was the new little park on the highway, augmenting a much bigger and more pleasant park a few blocks away IN the town and FOR the town. A man has adopted it and has been fertilizing, mowing and watering to suit himself. But the mayor sees it as HER baby and wants everything cleared through herself. Big brown spots have appeared. Is this the man’s fault: fertilizer burn? Is it the mayor’s fault: not authorizing enough water? Turns out it is the fault of those who built the park: there are relic gravel parking pads just under the dirt and they will not hold EITHER fertilizer or water. Anyway, they are probably contaminated and ought to have been dug up and trucked out.

There’s a moose on the loose and it was hanging out on the little island in the irrigation reservoir that the two women insist on considering a recreational bonanza, though for the last years it’s been mud for a hundred feet around the edge and even the ice has been undependable because of global warming. (Ice fishing is big around here.) The men’s bathroom has a single toilet which has broken again, but this time it’s not vandalism. Luckily, there is a urinal, but it’s not enough, as reflection will confirm.

Water and sewer are the major issue. One old man insists that though he lives in a little old house, he uses no water. Indeed, he never turns on an outside faucet. Some claim he pees in a can and dumps it outside at night. What to do? We do not have metered water -- it’s just divvied into even shares, which bugs me because I have no washing machine (I use a laundromat in a town thirty miles away because the laundromat in Valier was removed because the young new owners of its location thought it was too much work), no dishwasher, a shower instead of a tub, and otherwise am pretty water-sparing -- but I pay the same as people who have houses with three bathrooms, who run loads of clothes all day long, who have teenagers who live in the shower, and automatic subterranean watering systems that never forget to turn on. The only real answer is meters, but the cost would be enormous. On the other hand, there are people who use Valier as their weekend home only, yet pay full fee.

We are all forbidden to use outside water between 10AM and 6PM. And if our grass gets too tall, it will be mown for us and we will be billed $150.

There are people who are urging the building of new houses, even as the businesses in the town close, one after another. The population grows and the part that is growing is the high-income part, coming in from outside, people who live on capital rather than labor. All the small people, now living on Social Security after a lifetime working as gas jockeys and clerks and waitresses for local citizens, are feeling desperate and oppressed. Because they are. The infrastructure is shrinking in many small ways. The town clerk is only working four days a week now, to save money. The rich lady wrote a check to buy a $12,000 K-9 German Shepherd for the county sheriff to use in this village of 350 people, mostly over fifty years old. It will take six weeks to train the deputy at a special location in the midwest. The mayor is thrilled. This deputy will take another two weeks to be trained for the DARE program. (No one here has any awareness of research showing the DARE program doesn't work.)

The most exciting part of the meeting was when one of the older and most beloved characters of the town, who has served and helped people for decades, rose on her cane to challenge a letter she’d been sent telling her she was out-of-compliance on one of her rentals. She’s in the commercial zone which stipulates that no one can live on the first floor, which must be a place of business, but can live upstairs, which this woman does. She owns other property where men were living while they did some work for her and that was on the ground floor. (There are few two-story structures at all in this village where the water tower and grain elevator are the equivalent of skyscrapers.)

Beyond that, for relief on hot evenings, they had sat out on the curb drinking. WHAT they were drinking was a matter of controversy. Were they dangerous rough sorts who threatened children as they passed by? Or were they honest working fellows trying to relax a bit? “Govern less by the books and more with your hearts!” scolded the old lady.

The young men on the council writhed in misery. The two women were unmoved. “We MUST reinforce the existing ordinances,” said the rich lady piously. “I don’t want to see our downtown no longer viable,” said the mayor. The location in question is a couple of former bars, now defunct out of sheer decrepitude. One had a basement that filled with water, which was thought to be from the water table until it was discovered to be a sewer leak. The proprietor had been pumping it into a truck and taking it out to his little farm to put on his trees. They grew wonderfully well.

The bottom line was that a local business had complained that the loafers were interfering with their business traffic, but didn’t go straight to the landlady -- just inviegled the council into being their catspaw -- and the landlady (probably knowing this) had attacked the town council (who had quietly granted her a variance at once) instead of her neighbor.

I hope the K-9 sheriff’s dog can solve this sort of problem. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens when the first teenaged nocturnal vandal (who are a major part of our crime quotient) gets badly bitten.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


Prairie Mary up in the mountains about October, 1962.

Track of the Cat” is both a classic Walter Van Tilburg Clark book and a classic Western movie. When the movie came out in 1954, I was a freshman in high school, a point at which many people are open to the world and morally sensitized. The impact of the black-and-white in color movie -- all snow outside and white beadboard inside, except for a blood-red blanket-wool jacket worn by Robert Mitchum -- was so strong that it has stayed with me ever since and still shows up in dreams.

The tale is simple: a black cougar (a mutative melanoma sport -- not a black jungle leopard) has been preying on the cattle. The mystical Indian hired hand and the oldest son have a connection with it and carvings of it. The middle son, Mitchum, is aggressive, competent, and determined to just go kill the cat. The youngest son, Tab Hunter, has a prospective bride visiting him but is coming off as weak, incompetent. How tough is too tough? As the movie goes on, the old mother, Beulah Bondi, asks this question. The oldest son is killed by the cat -- not tough enough. Mitchum is killed by exceeding his own limits -- too tough. The youngest son, with a little help from his friends, reaches equilibrium. But the cat survives.

I had an uncle like the Mitchum character, which may be the reason his character struck so deep. This ranching uncle (He was actually a farmer but high prestige farmers are often called “ranchers.”) was effective and made money, but he also made enemies and oppressed his own family. It took me a long time to realize my subconscious had tied Mitchum, this uncle, the character in the movie, and Bob Scriver all together. To mention this is to open the door to the West in my head. Bob’s idea of how and when to hunt was to go up into the East Front of the Rockies after a snow, a landscape not that different from the slopes of Mt. Rainier where “Track of the Cat” was shot.

I don’t know why Beulah Bondi struck me so hard. Partly I wanted to be like her -- strong and in control -- and that’s probably why I emphasize my old-lady-hood now. I find myself wearing black and saying cynical things as she did in this movie. (People don’t appreciate it -- maybe they should see the movie.) The two girls (there’s a sister) strike me as ninnies. The Shakespearean comic relief drunken father is discardable. I’ve also welcomed the recent popularity of white beadboard and have plans to install more wainscotings of the stuff all over my little house.

Walter Van Tilburg Clark taught at the University of Montana until Leslie Fiedler ran him out -- not personally, but because Fiedler was so rude, confrontive and determined to shock that Clark, a gentleman, didn’t care to stay. (A.B. Guthrie Jr. told me this, just before his wife towed him away from the gossip.) I did know Clark’s son a little when he was the librarian at the Montana Historical Society. Likewise, he was a gentleman.

The DVD of “Track of the Cat” has interviews with Tab Hunter, who had a ranch in the Flathead Valley before he died, and I was glad to see that at the point of the interview he seemed far more of a real movie star, not just a pretty face. The director, William Wellman, comes in for a lot of discussion, for which I was glad. Mitchum as well as Hunter is full of praise for him. Even the Mitchum character’s horse, played by “Black Diamond,” gets some discussion. It’s the horses rather than the cows that are of interest in Westerns. (Even pigs get more respect than cows!)

It is proposed that “Track of the Cat” was actually an “art house” film and probably it was in the sense of being conscious of images and philosophy, not just following an exciting plot. Clark had given them something deep and wide to work with and Wellman took full advantage. I was not the only one to be affected.

One of Wellman’s decisions, which he later questioned himself, was never showing the cat itself. One sees consequences and tracks (made by special shoes worn by Wellman’s young son) but must imagine the cat itself.

There was another movie, a horror movie, that I had seen when I was younger, on a double bill with the original “King Kong.” It was about a black panther in a small Mexican town. A mother in a little house on the edge of the town needs a loaf of bread and wants her daughter to go buy it, but it’s after dark and the daughter doesn’t want to go because of the panther. The mother forces her out and locks the door. In a few minutes the girl is back, screaming that the panther is after her. The mother thinks she’s making it up and won’t let her in.

Blood trickles under the door.

That’s the panther I wanted Mitchum to kill. Nowadays, maybe I’m enough Beulah Bondi to just kill it myself.


Since me ‘n Kip Stanton, author of “Chasing the Rodeo,” have exchanged email messages now, I figure we’re on the same wave length and the proof of that is that we agree that the two all-time best rodeo movies are “The Lusty Men” and “Junior Bonner.” However, there is a third that’s a pretty good runner-up, so I decided to watch it again the other night: “Cowboy Up.” The phrase means don’t admit you hurt, tough it out, never give an inch. (Okay, so that’s Hank Stamper and he was Ken Kesey’s timber country hero, but the principle remains.)

The next day I got some copying done in Great Falls and the clerk turned out to be married to a bull rider, which is the subject of the movie. She even looked a little like Molly Ringwald, the bull rider in the movie. She thought this was a GREAT movie! It was shot after the National Bull Riding Finals started happening in Las Vegas, complete with strobes, smoke, rock ‘n roll, fireworks and actual flames -- very hyped as “extreme sports.”

But that wasn’t really the point of the film, which was written by Jamie Redford, son of Robert Redford. Bad things happen to good people and Jamie developed a condition that required a liver transplant. It failed. He fought hard to stay alive long enough to get a second transplant and that one worked. My prejudice is always to look at the bio of the author, and this time it was quite revealing.

In the movie, the father of two brothers is one of those Western monster fathers, so over-the-top macho that he destroys his own children. In this case Exhibit A is a time in the past when the dog was badly hurt and the father tried to make his small sons kill it. Euthanasia, you know, though one son insists that the dog could be saved by a decent veterinarian and one tends to believe that. (For another instance, this time in a memoir, see Mark Spragg’s account of his father making him destroy a horse that the boy had caused to be irremedially hurt.)

The focus of much of Western (and frontier) literature is the problem of when tough is not tough enough, or when tough is just TOO tough. Either is destructive, immoral, and perhaps fatal -- but the decisions are often “combat decisions” without enough knowledge or time to reflect. Still, some people are corrupted by being tough.

In this story, the mother has had enough and runs the father off, holding a gun on him until he’s gone. The problem is that the older boy seems to understand, but the younger boy is confused by the father being a (briefly) champion bull rider who took his son up on his shoulder while accepting his trophy in the spotlit arena, imprinting him with glory-hunger. The older boy grows up to be a rodeo clown (a life-saver) and begins to parlay that into being a stock provider. The younger boy wants to be a champion, in spite of near-death trauma.

This still doesn’t get to the actual point Jamie is making, I think. What he has seen is that no father can protect one from death -- not even Robert Redford. And there’s no rhyme nor reason to who dies and who survives. The older brother is wiser, smarter, more balanced. The younger brother is rash, immoral, overemotional, etc. Guess who gets the women. Guess who gets killed.

So I looked at to see what the remarks were and found them sophomoric. Most of the posts were evidently written by the younger brother. Big complaints about the women looking old and their haircuts being unflattering. (We’re talking Daryll Hannah here, who has a little echo riff about two sisters, also quite different from each other. And Molly Ringwald is a grownup ranch wife.) As though it were some kind of crime for barrel-racers and ranch wives to be real. The mom, who is quite young-looking in a ball cap and sneakers, has Russell Means for a sidekick, whom the reviewers demanded be a more effective father figure. They evidently don’t know anything about Means’ real-life problems with domestic violence. He’s playing the part of a dependable man and he did it well, but if one took that aura into account, one could say this mother had a taste for dangerous men.

But to me the most sophomoric comment was about the bucking bull the older brother owns: a massive beast who is happy out standing in his field with the sun setting behind him, but a killer in the arena. “Oh, that Jamie is always putting in some kind of nature mysticism. He oughta get over it.” Their own sneering and superior attitudes are... oh, never mind.

This movie never made it to theatrical release. The previews were evidently along the lines of these comments and the movie went straight to video. We should be grateful for video! Heck, out here on the prairie it’s too far to drive to a movie theatre anyway. And it’s good that this movie wasn’t lost.

As it happens, most folks around here -- rodeo fans or not -- know that death can come suddenly, through an error of one’s own in judging the roads or large animals or one’s own shortfall. They know that part of toughness is simple humility in the face of a larger force. (And what Jamie would like you to know is that if you meet Death somewhere, be it bull or eighteen-wheeler, it would be a good thing if you’d signed a witnessed organ donor card so that some good can come of it.)

On a recurring subject has been the disintegration of writing (and I’ll include movies here) into genres and pretensions so that readers of one category actively avoid another, sometimes out of snobbishness and sometimes out of anti-intellectualism. I think part of the phenomenon is seeing only the narrative content -- what happens -- without any consciousness of theme, symbol, echo (esp. echoes of other media or life itself), image, and so on. People who read without these elements, esp. those who don’t even sort of “feel” them in an unconscious, unacademic way, are inclined to sneer at rodeo movies because they don’t know anything about them. They can see them as “extreme sports” and glam women or maybe transgressive men -- but that’s where it stops. How can they enjoy the authenticity if they’ve never even been to a rodeo? And they crave an ending that is both a surprise and a statement of some kind that they can understand. Everything has to have hype and dazzle.

A “literary” sophisticated watching or reading of the same film -- if it’s a decent film -- will yield up far more to think about and feel. The French are almost too much inclined to do this, because one can look at an ordinary experience in a psychoanalytic way and find amazing things in it. Maybe some things that aren’t justified. (I mean, is Jerry Lewis really that significant?) And the reaction of many genre watchers and readers will be like my Heart Butte high school students: “Aw, you just killed it.” To be intellectual is for them to lose the ecstatic projection that makes them think it’s THEM in the movie. But to reject all reflection means to lose the richness and the application to their own lives, the real value of literature.

Once in Bozeman I managed to sneak into a class taught by Tom Moore, the Jungian and spiritual writer, where a college-aged boy had also crashed the class, evidently desperate for self-knowledge. He wanted to know the meaning of a dream wherein he was driving down a road, ran over a snake, got out to look at it -- it reared up and looked at him, then died. When Moore slowly coaxed the young man to the snake=penis=potency/masculinity equation, the boy had one of the biggest “aha” experiences I’ve ever seen. Zounds! The world shifted under his feet!

An excellent teacher in my sophomore high school year took me to the same realization in regard to modern poetry. She was the elegant, lesbian, graceful daughter of a lawyer, and the national head of the NEA that year. I hope you never find out how illiterate and rude a fool the present head is. That may be part of the problem. The principal in Heart Butte said to me, “Why would anyone want to read a story twice. It only takes once to find out what happens.” Another ignoramus.

I’ve probably watched Jamie Redford’s “Cowboy Up,” three times. No doubt I’ll watch it many more times, because “what happens” is not the whole story.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


My eye problems have turned out to be an interesting exercise in sociology. Today I went back to the Great Falls Clinic for some tests to follow up on the discovery of damage to my retinas due to diabetes and high blood pressure. I’m happy to say that my eyes are okay now, thanks to Dr. Boes who was very emphatic and persuasive in breaking through what amounted to denial. But he still is worried by an old woman who does everything herself alone, including drive herself to eye appointments eighty miles from home.

This is the second time my eyes have been saved by a Great Falls Clinic eye doctor. Dr. Jordan fused holes in my retinas in 1990, damage that had occured in Saskatoon -- I suspect due to environmental contamination. (One can smell the ag chemicals on the wind.) I’d begun having ocular migraines up there (one sees patterns, like TV test patterns) and had gone to the eye clinic. In theory all Saskatchewan citizens and green card holders have access to socialized medical care but the truth is that there are strict gate-keepers. In this case it was a man who mocked me for being an invading American and claimed I was making up my troubles in order to bump deserving old Canadians out of their entitlements. That was part of the reason I left.

Eyes on the prairie have to look far in very bright light at high altitudes where the light contains a lot of ultra-violet. Everyone gets cataracts late in life. We all look out through wrinkle webs from squinting. The eye doctors are very busy. Straw hats and wraparound UV dark glasses are recommended.

When I got back to Montana in 1990, teaching in Heart Butte and therefore insured, Dr. Jordan used his brand new laser machine on me. In seconds he had fused several years’ worth of damage, preventing the possibility of retinal tearing or detachment. In those days the Great Falls Clinic for eyes was in what they called “the Hole,” which was the basement of the old building. Its best feature was a big tank of fish which Dr. Jordan evidently took with him.

This new clinic building is extraordinary architecture. I do not like it. It reminds me of a cross between a sheep shed and a carnival. Many ragged edges, strange shapes, exposed glu-lam and industrial-bolts, tarted up with huge glass walls. The thing must be a horror to heat and cool in a climate that ranges from 110 to minus fifty. None of the exam rooms have windows anyway, so they are as much holes as they ever were. Great Falls is in the middle of a vicious war among medical entities, fueled by greed and symptomatized by these awful buildings.

Sitting there on a waiting room balcony with my magazine stash, I spotted the Valier librarian, the wife part of the team that runs the Blackfeet Trading Post in Browning, and the brother/husband of the two -- the person who was actually having cataract surgery on his eyes. These are all white folks, prosperous and respectable. In short order we’d manage to shake out a number of opinions, a little gossip, and some conclusive facts about white people in our double community. Pretty soon they dispersed.

Now, sitting across from me were a Blackfeet man and his small son, plus Mom, who was having cataract surgery. The man was a Rides-at-the-Door. The woman was a Hall. The boy was bright, handsome, well-mannered and full of beans, as one would expect knowing those two families. We talked about their family tree (Who's your mother?) and the man told me about how the small boy, when he was fifteen months old and the first one up in the morning, had discovered that the ancient granny of the family had died where she slept on the couch. The little guy had been very close to her. As the man talked, the boy became grave and leaned in under his father’s arm, hiding his eyes against the t-shirt that said, “I am a Blackfeet Man!”

In Blackfeet families the oldest and the youngest are assumed to belong together and to want to take care of each other, and that’s the way it works. There have been formal studies into why post-menopausal women are an adaption of evolution, experienced women who have stopped having their own babies so that they are free to nurture the children of the strong young women so they can work -- tan hides, dig roots, bring firewood, or go type (I mean “keyboard”) in an office. The development is not for the good of the individual, but for the good of the community. Seems pretty obvious, but it’s nice to have formal confirmation.

Anyway, old ladies used to keep order on the reservation and the small towns. (Now the younger men dominate everything. They quarrel a lot over money.) They weren’t afraid to give their opinions and they usually had enough family clout to make them stick. They see everything -- if they happen to be napping when something happens, someone is sure to tell them.

My first eye test was about peripheral vision: I looked at a red dot, watching for little white dots that appeared now and then. If I saw one, I had a clicker like a computer mouse. It was a sort of arcade game. The young woman who gave me the test is a Great Falls native who is married to an Air Force guy. She said they will leave pretty soon and move to Mississippi because there is nothing to do in Great Falls but go to bars. I named off the five museums in town (not dinky ones, either) and an assortment of other stuff, like the roller rink, the hiking trail along the river, the string quartet, etc. No sale.

The second eye test was a different young woman and we didn’t talk quite so much. She wore no ring. She concentrated intensely while she measured my cornea thickness (can that be right?) with a little sonar instrument. Then she did the routine about “which lens is clearer, this one or that one?” I never know. In a jiffy Dr. Boes was there, cheerful and willing to let me ramble a bit. He was on schedule! And he had run across me while Googling.

In fact, he’d read some of my blogs and this had rather changed his attitude towards me. (My supervisor when I was student teaching back in Evanston, IL, in 1961 said to me, “You know, you look as though you’re probably really stupid -- but when you talk you seem intelligent.” Yeah, well, he should dump those old stereotypes about overweight women in cheap clothes and bad haircuts, eh?) Dr. Boes said I’d “aced” all his tests and wouldn’t need another exam for a year. That was good news.

It was very hot in Great Falls -- generally is this time of year -- but there was cold air sweeping down from Canada, bringing big banks of cumulus. The winter wheat is ripening to gold. The alfalfa along the road is blooming purple and bales and windrows are drying in the fields. Tall green grass beaded with seeds on the top are swaying in the wind. The still-slender cat tails are forming in the barrow pits. The long view of hill and mountain was fluid brush strokes of green and blue with great masses of purple storm dragging rain and hail underneath. Biblical shafts of light shared sky with the laser wriggles of lightning.

I was very glad I could see it all, thanks to alert and competent doctors. Even so independent an old bag as me sometimes needs help.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


This weekend is both the Calgary Stampede and, a couple of hour’s drive to the south, North American Indian Days in Browning. It’s ninety degrees, the grass is still green, and the crowds are big in spite of the gas prices. I delivered a book order this morning and was lucky enough to run into Adolf Hungry Wolf so I could tell him how highly I think of his new books.

Adolf says that there is a special “presentation” issue of them with tooled leather bindings and so on. Those are about sold out. The more modest versions, which surprised me by having bright glossy bindings with art work on them, more like textbooks or story books, will stay in print but are selling quickly. My advice is to hurry to get your copies. I took my own advice, even though it meant quickly making and binding a box of my own books to sell in order to come up with the $300 for the 4-volume set.

If you need to buy through the mail, there are two distributors:

On the US side, The Blackfeet Heritage Center, P.O. Box 1629, Browning, Montana, 59417. On the Canadian side: The Good Medicine Cultural Foundation, Box 844, Skookumchuck, British Columbia V0B 2E0.

It’s possible to buy individual volumes, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you which ones you'd want. “Volume One: Pikunni History and Culture” includes an interview with Bob Scriver and another with Darrell Kipp.

Adolf set a few things straight that I’d gotten from other sources or misapprehended myself. One is that he is NOT “German.” He is actually Austrian on his mother’s side and Hungarian on his father’s side, but born in Germany. And he didn’t come to his first North American Indian Days in an armored car: it was actually a movie-making van which looked rather like an armored car except for the faded image of the movie studio’s logo on the side. He sold his Porsche to get it, so he wasn’t as much of a hippie as we’d imagined. He came in 1967.

He says that he’s gotten nothing but postive feedback from everyone, though he ducked the formal reception at the Blackfeet Heritage Center yesterday. Given that in the past AIM has put out a “fatwa” on him (as they did on Bob Scriver), that’s remarkable. One of the most backwards strategies of the Red Empowerment people was to try to forbid “white” people to write anything about them, or to know anything about them in the first place, or even -- as one of my students demanded -- to look at them. There’s no question that they were often used and exploited, but some people were deeply in sympathy with them and they ought to have been able to recognize that.

Of course, it would have weakened the message. One can’t urge an all-out attack and then start exempting this one and that one and the other. Especially when there is no dependable way to sort out who deserved what, and when there is a long tradition of entangling individual whites secretly to be sources of money, information, and influence.

In fact, Adolf and I agree that if the excesses of Red Empowerment were necessary in order to break up an oppressive status quo -- still haven’t finished the job, really. But a whole generation grew old in the attempt, some of them aging behind bars. Both of us have paid a certain price, nothing that desperate, but I guess we both survived. I guess we are friends because we are survivors.

So what’s Adolf up to now? Well, he has a laptop -- laid out these books on it -- but still has no electricity at his place so he has to go somewhere else to do electronic stuff. But the Good Medicine site will soon have email capability. He says he won’t write a blog, but he IS working on two novels: one about a young European man who comes here a hundred years ago and one about Cuba.

I’m looking forward to them.